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President Lincoln 


Case of John Y. Beall 



62 Beaver St., New York 


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Digitized by tlie Internet Arcliive 

in 2011 witli funding from 

The Institute of Museum and Library Services through an Indiana State Library LSTA Grant 

Taken three hours before his death 




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The proceedings, finding and sentence are approved and the 
accused John Y. Beall will he hanged by the neck till he is dead, 
on Governors Island, on Friday the 24:th day of February, 1865." 

SUCH was the endorsement dated February 18, of John A. 
Dix, Major General commanding the Department of 
the East on the proceedings of a military com- 
mission convened by his order, in the city of 
New York for the trial of Beall for violation of the 
laws of war and acting as a spy.* Beall 's execution in coonformi- 
ty with the sentence, was therefore the first incident of the kind 
in the vicinity of New York since that of Nathan Hale eighty- 
nine years before. From the beginning of the war Beall had en- 
gaged in exciting adventure but of a character in keeping with 
his reputation as a man of refinement and culture. Towards the 
close he swerved from what was deemed consistent with lawful 
warfare and for this he paid the penalty with his life. 

One of the most interesting phases of Beall 's case was its dis- 
closure of President Lincoln in a light that refutes most forcibly 
the popular impression of his pliancy, lacking in backbone and as 
easily swayed by appeals for mercy in spite of his four years' 
previous temporizing with transgressors of every conceivable 
type. In no instance was his firm and unimpressionable side so 
strikingly demonstrated as in the case of Beall when Heaven and 
earth were moved to save the life of a brave but misguided sol- 
dier. Never before did Lincoln so turn a deaf ear to supplica- 
tions from all quarters without regard to party, rank or station. 
"For days before the execution," it was said ''the President 
closed the doors of the executive palace against all suppliants, 

* Saturday, February 18th, was originally named for the execution. The change to 
Friday, February 24th, wa^ owing to certain tecnical errors in the proceedings. 

male or female, and his ears against all appeals, whether with 
the tongue of men or angels in behalf of the unfortunate prison- 
er. From the first Mr. Lincoln had responded to all applications 
for his interposition— 'Gen. Dix may dispose of the case as he 
pleases— I will not interfere!' Gen. Dix on his part replied 'All 
now rests with the President— as far as my action rests there is 
not a gleam of hope. ' Thus they stood as the pillars of the gal- 
lows, on which Beall's fate was suspended and between them 
he died." 

The man who thus wrought a change in the attitude of the 
chief magistrate, heretofore so susceptible, John Y. Beall, was 
one of seven children of a prominent family of Jefferson County, 
Va. He inherited wealth and social position, was of exemplary 
habits,- well-read, active in Church work and of philosophic mind. 
He had taken a three years course in the University of Virginia 
and while there studied law. A man of action, enamored of 
movement and change he joined a Virginia regiment early in the 
war, and was shortly thereafter wounded in the lungs. Thus in- 
capacitated from regular service he embarked in a series of in- 
dependent enterprises which culminated in his tragic death. He 
passed much of his time in Canada, tlie rendezvous of Confeder- 
ate agents and sympathizers and it was there, presumably, that 
he conceived the idea of privateering on the Lakes, levying and 
burning some of the adjacent cities and releasing Confederate 
prisoners on Johnson's island in Lake Erie. He flitted between 
Canada and Richmond, held conferences with the Confederate 
authorities and was finally given a commission as acting master 
of the Confederate Navy. As such he soon attracted attention by 
numerous exploits in Chesapeake Bay and adjacent waters, such 
as the capture of little Yankee vessels with prisoners and stores, 
cutting submarine telegraph cables and partially destroying Cape 
Charles Light House. He was eventually caught, placed in irons 
in Fort McHenry and when released joined an organization of 
Confederates armed with revolvers and hatchets who captured 
two regular freight and passenger steamers on Lake Erie, confis- 
cated the cargoes and money, scuttled one of the steamers and 
put all on board under duress. 

Thus far Beall's exploits while reprehensible were far less 

open to censure than his subsequent doings which comprised 
three attempts to derail passenger cars near Butfalo', N. Y., with 
a view of liberating a number of Confederate officers— prisoners 
of war— being transferred from Johnson's Island to Fort War- 
ren, Boston harbor. By what psychological process this man of 
excellent antecedents could be brought to engage in operations of 
this character surpasses comprehension. The fact remains that 
after two unsuccessful attempts and escape he was after 
the third operation on December 14th, 1864, caught while lin- 
gering at the railroad station at Suspension Bridge, N. Y,, by a 
local policeman, all of his companions having escaped. He was 
sent to New York, confined in Police Headquarters and then 
lodged in Fort Lafayette in the lower bay. There he occupied a 
room with Gen. Roger A. Pryor recently captured in Virginia, 
Beall wished Pryor to act as his counsel. Charles A. Dana, as 
assistant secretary of war objected on the ground that ''under 
no circumstances can a prisoner of war be allowed to act as 
counsel for a person accused of being a spy.^' Thereupon James 
T. Brady, a foremost member of the New York bar, was selected 
as Beall's counsel. Five witnesses testified for the prosecution 
No witnesses were offered by the defense. Brady contended that 
Beall was no spy nor was he amenable to a military commission. 
The Judge Advocate, Major John Bolles took the ground that 
there was nothing of Christian Civilization and nothing of regu- 
lar warfare in Beall's operations. BealPs conviction followed 
in quick order and he requested his friend to send to the Presi- 
dent a copy of the record of the trial and attach to it this state- 
ment : ' ' Some of the evidence is true, some false. I am not a spy 
or guerrilero. The execution of the sentence will be murder." 
' Beall's friends were aroused to action, either through Gen- 
Dix or President Lincoln. It was manifest from the first of 
Beall's life rests with the former there was no escape. Dix, the 
man of resolution and iron-will, author of the famous order pro- 
mulgated on the eve of the war— "If any one attempts to haul 
down the American flag shoot him on the spot!" was none of 
the yielding kind. Moreover in his approval of the death sen- 
tence he had said that "a want of flexibility in executing the 
sentence of death would be against the outraged civilization and 

humanity of the age ' ' and let it be understood from the start that 
he would not recede. 

At this point the tide turned in the direction of the White 
House with two close friends and schoolmates of Beall in the 
University of Virginia in the lead— Albert Ritchie in later years 
Judge of the Baltimore Supreme Court and James A. L. McClure 
at a subsequent period prominent in Maryland politics. Andrew 
Sterrett Ridgely of Baltimore, son-in-law of Reverdy Johnson, 
was an early caller on the President in behalf of Beall, the result 
of which confinned him that Dix was to have his way. Francis 
L. Wheatly, a leading Baltimorean, went to Washington and 
joined numerous New Yorkers in a conference with the Presi- 
dent. Congressman R. Mallory, of Kentucky, and a party of 
ladies were received by Mr. Lincoln. There was in Washington 
at this time Orville H. Browning of Illinois, a close personal 
friend of the President who had served in the United States Sen- 
ate as successor of Stephen A. Douglas and his services were re- 
tained by Beall 's friends. Browning prepared a statement to be 
laid before the President and called at the White House with 
Ritchie and others. At one of these interviews Browning was 
closeted for an hour with the President. On another visit he 
brought with him a petition bearing the signature of 85 members 
of the House and another signed by 6 members of the Senate 
many of which were obtained by the aid of the Rev, Dr. John J. 
Bullock, of the Franklin Street Presbyterian Church of Balti- 
more. These petitions together with a letter of Browning, all 
hitherto unpublished read as follows: 

Washington, D. C, Feb. 17, 1865. 
The President: 

Capt. John Y. Beall has been tried by a court martial at New 
York, found guilty and sentenced to be hung as a spy and guer- 

The sentence was approved by Major General Dix on the 14th 
Feb'y, and directed to be carried into execution tomorrow the 

This is brief time for preparation for so solemn and appalling 
an event. The friends of Capt. Beall desire to appeal to your 
clemency for a commutation of the sentence from death to im- 

prisonmeiit and that they may have the opportunity to prepare 
and present to your consideration the reasons which they hope 
may induce to a commutation. 

They now beseech you to grant the unhappy man such respite 
as you may deem reasonable and just under the circumstances. 
As a short respite is all that is asked for now and as that can in 
no event harm, I forbear at present to make any other sugges- 
tion. Most respectfully your friend, 

0. H. Browning. 

Since writing the foregoing the Eev. Dr. Bullock and others 
have placed in my hands a petition signed by ninety-one members 
of Congress including Speaker Colfax, which I submit here- 

To THE President: 

The undersigned members of the House of Representatives 
respectfully ask your Excellency to commute the sentence of 
Captain John Y. Beall, now under sentence to be hung on Gover- 
nor's Island on the 18th (tomorrow). 

J. A. Cravens (Ind.) Nathan F. Dixon (R. I.) 

W. E. Fink (0.) John L. Dawson (Pa.) 

Joseph K. Edgerton (Ind.) Geo. Bliss (0.) 

A. L, Knapp (Ills.) James S. Rollins (Mo.) 

W. R. Morrison (Ills.) H. A. Nelson (N. Y.) 

John R. Eden (Ills.) Francis Keman (N. Y.) 

Dwight Townsend (N. Y.) E. Dumont (Ind.) 

John V. L. Pruyn (N. Y.) A. McAllister (Pa.) 

'M. F. Odell (N. Y.) H. W. Tracy (Pa.) 

Anson Herrick (N. Y.) K. V. Whally (W. Va.) 

Wm. Radford (N. Y.) John Ganson (N. Y.) 

H. W. Harrington (Ind.) I. Donnelly (Minn.) 

Benj. G. Harris (Md.) R. Mallory (Ky.) 

L. D. M. Sweat (Me.) A. Harding (Ky.) 

Daniel Marcy (N. H.) H. Grider (Ky.) 

John McNeill (?) Joseph Baily (Pa.) 

Charles Denison (Pa.) Austin A. King (Mo.) 


Greo. H. Yeaman (Ky.) 
W. A. Hutchins (O.) 
J. W. White (0.) 
Jas. R. Morris (0.) 
J. F. McKinney (0.) 
W. G. Steele (N. J.) 
JohnB. Steele (N. Y.) 
Geo. H. Pendleton (0.) 
J. W. Chanler (N. Y.) 
John Law (Ind.) 
Martin Kalbfleisch (N. Y.) 
J. C. Allen (111.) 
S. P. Ancona (Pa.) 
Fernando Wood (N. Y.) 
W. P. Noble (0.) 
Aug. C. Baldwin (Mich.) 
John A. Griswold (N. Y.) 
Lu Anderson (Ky.) 
A. H. Coffroth (Pa.) 
J. N. Broomall (Pa.) 
J. A. Garfield (0.) 
Sam'l S. Cox (0.) 
John T. Stewart (Ills.) 
S. Colfax (Ind.) 
C. A. Eldridge (Wis.) 
Wm. H. Miller (Pa.) 

James E. English (Conn.) 
James S. Brown (Wis.) 
Wm. Johnson (0.) 
W. H. Randall (Ky.) 
Brutus J. Clay (Ky.) 
Lew W. Ross (Ills.) 
E. C. IngersoU (Ills.) 
W. H. Wadsworth (Ky.) 

C. M. Harris (Ky.) 
James T. Hale (Pa.) 
Wm. G. Brown (W. Va.) 
M. Russell Thayer (Pa.) 
Alexander Long (0.) 

G. Clay Smith (Ky.) 
Thos. T. Davis (N. Y.) 
Henry T. Blow (Mo.) 
I. K. Moorhead (Pa.) 
S. F. Miller (N. Y.) 
R. P. Spaulding (0.) 

E. R. Eckley (0.) 

D. Morris (N. Y.) 

F. W. Kellogg (Mich.) 
A. J. Rogers (N. J.) 
W. B. Allison (Iowa.) 
T. A. Jenckes (R. I.) 
C. H. Winfield (N. J.) 

Among the foregoing names will be recognized many who at- 
tained higher honors in later years including that of James A. 
Garfield whose signature is preceded by a note reading : ' ' I rec- 
ommend a temporary reprieve at least." 

Henry T. Blow wrote before signing: *'I hope that time for 
preparation will be extended to this man," and J. K. Moorhead 
the following signer wrote: ''So say I." 

D. Morris (Daniel Morris of Yates County, N. Y.) took the 
precaution before appending his endorsement to insert the 
words : * ' If the public safety will admit I concur. ' ' 

This petition Mr. Browning presented to the President, re- 

taining a copy which he later endorsed as follows: "Feb. 17, 
1865. Called on the President and read the original of this pa- 
per to him, and left it, together with petition signed by 91 mem- 
bers of Congress with him." 

The appeal of the six Senators was in the following language : 

Washington, February 17th, 1865. 

To His Excellency the President : 

Your petitioners respectfully represent that John Yates Beall 
of Jefferson County, Virginia, was arrested on the 16th day of 
December last and taken to the City of New York and there tried 
by a military commission appointed by Maj. Gen'l Dix upon 
charges, 1st of a violation of the laws of war, and 2nd * ' Acting as 
a spy, ' ' and after a hasty trial was found guilty and is sentenced 
to be hung on Saturday the 18th inst. As it is admitted 
that the said Beall is a Captain regularly commissioned in the 
rebel service and that Jefferson Davis by a manifesto of the 
day of assumed all responsibility for the acts of Cap- 
tain Beall and Comrades in capturing the Steamer Philo Par- 
sons and the Island Queen, and thus publicly asserted that the 
several acts specified in the charges against said Beall were done 

under his authority and direction, we therefore respectfully rec- 
ommend your Excellency a commutation of the sentence of death 
pronounced against him. Very respectfully, 

L. W. Powell (Ky.) 
0. R. BucKALEw (Pa.) 
J. A. McDouGALL (Calf.) 
Wm. Wright (N. J.) 
Geo. Read Riddle (Del.) 
Garrett Davis (Ky.) 

As might be supposed Browning's influence with Lincoln in 
this instance, went for naught. As a result of his numerous in- 
terviews he brought to Beall 's friends no more assurance than a 
possible commutation of sentence should the inexorable Dix be 
induced to approve. The President was uninfluenced by the 
visits of Richard S. Spofford, librarian of Congress, John W. 
Garrett, President of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Mr. Ris- 
ley, the law partner of Browning, Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsyl- 


vania, Gov. John Andrew of Massachusetts, George W. Grafflin 
and Edward Stabler, both prominent citizens o^ Maryland. When 
James T. Brady, Beall's counsel, who had served without com- 
pensation, sought an interview he was told by the President's 
secretary that the case being closed he could not be seen. Mont- 
gomery Blair was disposed of in like manner despite the fact 
that he had been Postmaster General in Lincoln's cabinet and 
the venerable Frances P. Blair of Maryland, who held confiden- 
tial relations with Lincoln gained nothing by his visit. Accom- 
panying Montgomery Blair was Mrs. John S. Gittings, wife of 
a well-known Baltimore banker and railroad President. The 
Gittings were no strangers to the President, Mrs. Lincoln and 
her two younger sons having enjoyed the hospitality of their 
home on Mount Vernon place Baltimore when the President elect 
made the secret night journey to Washington four years before. 
This fruitless visit of Montgomery Blair with Mrs. Gittings was 
on the night preceding Beall's execution— February 23d. 

The same night witnessed a most remarkable gathering at the 
White House— a joint call of John W. Forney, Republican edi- 
tor, Washington McLean, Democrat editor and Roger A. Pryor, 
Confederate Brigadier, the latter fresh from imprisonment in 
Fort Lafayette where he had met Beall. The purpose of this 
call was a double one— to secure the parole or exchange of 
Pryor and discuss with the President the case of Beall. Lin- 
coln paroled Pryor in the custody of Forney at whose house he 
remained as a guest for several weeks until he left for Virginia. 
Next the party took up the case of Beall at great length. For- 
ney, McLean and Pryor urged a respite. Lincoln was much in- 
terested in all Pryor had to say of the young man's social stand- 
ing and high reputation. Finally he showed a telegram from Dix 
stating that Beall's execution was necessary for the security of 
the community. Dix undoubtedly had in mind the recent at- 
tempt to burn the city of New York and the suspicion that Beall 
had a hand in it despite Beall's assurance to Pryor that such 
was not the case. Finding the President obdurate the party 

Pryor had with him Beall's diary which he gave to McLean. 
A copy of this he kept and another copy he gave to Gen. W. N. 

R. Beall. On his arrival in Eiclimond three week's later Pryor 
had an interview with President Davis to whom he fully ex- 
plained his conference with Lincoln. He then went to Petersburg 
his old home which was shortly afterward occupied by Gen. 
Grant. The President at this time made a flying visit to that 
town. While there he expressed a wish to have Pryor call and 
see him, Pryor, fearing that his people at this peculiar juncture 
might misconstrue his motive and resent his intercourse with the 
''Yankee President" deemed it best to decline the invitation. 

This visit of Forney, McLean and Pryor to the White House 
was probably the last in behalf of Beall and Dix had his way 
the execution of Beall taking place as ordered on February 24th. 
In striking contrast with Dix's firm stand against Beall was his 
complaisance in the distribution of passes to witness the execu- 
tion. These were given out without question, promiscuously and 
for the mere asking, the writer of this article being one of the 
many thus favored. 

The execution was scarcely over before the President had be- 
fore him a letter from Robert C. Kennedy, under sentence of 
death in Fo.rt Lafayette. He was one of a group of nine Con- 
federates engaged in the plot to burn the city of New York in 
November, 1864. Kennedy in his letter to the President raised 
the novel plea that death was too severe a punishment for his 
offense, that Beall 's execution ser\^ed all purpose. This absurd 
contention, of course, availed nothing. ' His execution followed 
one month after Beall 's. 

Writing some four months after Beall's death a close friend 
and school-mate, Daniel B. Lucas, subsequently United States 
Senator from West Virginia, and judge of the United States 
Supreme Court of that State, said of President Lincoln's course 
in the Beall case : ' ' There was one expedient which might have 
been successful had it been adopted, that was to have purchased 
the more influential of the Republican journals of New York 
over in favor of mercy. There was one influence to which Pres- 
ident Lincoln never failed to yield when strongly directed against 
him, the voice of his party ; this he did upon principle as the head 
of a popular government. Unfortunately, neither Beall nor his 
friends belonged to that party, hence the doors of mercy were 


closed against him." Lucas was a practicing lawyer in Rich- 
mond when Beall was awaiting trial. He wrote to Dix asking 
that he be allowed to act as Beall 's counsel, but Dix made no re- 
ply. What Lucas sets forth as to Lincoln's vulnerability must not 
be too seriously taken, since it was written at a time when party 
passion ran high and the writer had not yet recovered from the 
crushing blow occasioned by the execution of his dearest friend. 
Lincoln in this instance, could not well defy public opinion, sup- 
plemented as it was with Dix's previously quoted declaration 
that "a want of firmness would be against the outraged civiliza- 
tion and humanity of the age, ' ' and the no less forcible report of 
Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, that " Beall 's last enter- 
prise was a crime of fiendish enormity which cries loudly for 
the vengeance of the outraged law.' 


From the execution of Beall and the assassination of Lincoln 
has sprung a weird and lurid story for years industriously cir- 
culated and eagerly devoured— that Booth's deed was inspired by 
the President's broken promise of a pardon made to Booth. 
These in brief are the alleged facts : Beall and Booth were bosom 
friends, were before the war much together— as Damon and 
Pythias— and they had attended the same school. During the war 
Booth was with Beall on his Lake Erie expedition. When Beall 
was captured Booth sought Washington McLean, of Ohio, then 
in Washington, John P. Hale, United States Senator from New 
Hampshire, and John W. Forney, to aid in Beall 's release. For- 
ney was induced to implore the President to exercise clemency. 
Hale, McLean and Booth, were driven at midnight to the White 
House, the President was aroused and there was not a dry eye 
in the room as Booth knelt at the feet of Lincoln, clasped his 
knees and begged him to spare Beall 's life. All present joined 
in the request. At last Lincoln with tears streaming down his 
face took Booth by the hands and promised Beall's pardon. The 
next morning, Seward said when informed by Lincoln what he 
had done, that public sentiment in the North demanded that Beall 
should be hung and he threatened to resign should the President 
interfere. Seward carried his point and Beall was hanged. The 
effect on Booth was terrible. He brooded over schemes of ven- 
geance and the assassination followed. 


Such is the substance of this remarkable theory of Booth's 
motive which for years found currency in numerous newspapers 
and periodicals. The Virginia Historical Society regarded the 
story as of sufficient importance for incorporation in its official 
publications. Its genesis is uncertain but there is reason for be- 
lieving that it was conceived in the brain of Mark M. Pomeroy, 
the notorious editor of '* Pomeroy 's Democrat," a sensational 
weekly published shortly after the war. John W. Forney in 1876 
publicly branded the story so far as it relates to his knowing or 
meeting Booth during his lifetime, as an utter fabrication and he 
incidentally mentions the name of "Mr, Pomeroy" as the au- 
thor of the story as originally printed not long before. Forney 
adds that if Lincoln made such a promise to Booth as alleged he 
would have fulfilled it at all hazards and that Seward would 
have been the last man in the world to ask him to break his 

It is a matter of common knowledge that Booth's designs on 
Lincoln antedated Beall's operations by a quite remote period. 
Extensive research fails to disclose the slightest evidence of any 
acquaintance or intercourse of Beall and Booth prior to or dur- 
ing the war. Finally, the question of Booth's motive in killing- 
Lincoln so far as it involves Beall is disposed of by Booth's own 
record in his so-called diary of his movements after the assas- 
sination wherein is found under date of April 21 the entry: "T 
knew no private wrong. I struck for my country and that 
alone." This diary is in the possession of the War Department. 

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